In a word: Everything.
Reading might be the single most intimate act you will experience with a stranger.
When you open a book, you let a complete stranger into your most private space: your mind. Once there, this wordsmith sets up camp and creates words that conjure feelings, actions, and meaning. It’s a privilege to be invited into your mind, and this writer better have something useful, funny, evocative, intelligent, illuminating, or entertaining to say. Or voilà! You can snap the book closed and move on to something else. We’ve all done it. And we’ve also all leaned in when something has grabbed our attention and we felt that sense of “give me more of that.”
Writers start out as readers. They are captivated by the magic of words, but then they choose to take another step. They say, “I want to make the magic too.” It’s an innocent enough desire, and one most writers spend a long time trying to fulfill. It’s honest-to-goodness hard work, and most of it isn’t magical. In fact, we can get so caught up in the effort of honing our craft that we sometimes forget the ultimate reason for it: to court the love and loyalty of readers.
But how do we do that?
Well, first, we lovingly respect our future readers. We take them seriously. They have busy lives, lots of interests, and longings of their own. Because of these facts of existence, you, as a writer, owe your reader at least three things:
1) Tell a Good Story.
Tell a story that is compelling enough to make readers pause in their busy lives. We all appreciate good entertainment, relevant guidance, or breakthrough inspiration. Who hasn’t stayed up all night with a good book? Rather than being angry with that author we’ve been grateful for their powerful seduction, caught up as we were in their magic. Do whatever you have to do to learn how to wield this magic.
2) Don’t Please Everyone.
Readers have many tastes and interests and I guarantee that if you’re true to your “thing,” and hone it passionately (and follow point one), you will find your readers. Trust what drives you, work diligently at your craft, go deeper, cross all your Ts and dot all your Is, keep trusting, and don’t give up.
3) Speak the Truth
By all means tell your readers what they want to hear, but also tell them what they need to hear (from you). Take your reader on a wild ride with your thriller, but remind her about the human condition on the way. Get real in your fiction. I like to define fiction as “lies that tell the truth.” We often turn to made-up stories to discover deeper truths about ourselves and the world. And if something is true for you, it will resonate as true for someone else.
As a writer, you’ll never make every reader happy, and you needn’t waste your time trying. You can only do your thing for those readers who like to lean into your thing. But you must do your thing well. So learn more, practice more, get support, learn to take constructive feedback (and don’t take it personally), and take each project to its finish line, which, we have to admit, is into the hands and hearts of readers who want more of that.
And remember: If, by picking up your book, a reader invites you into their mind, and possibly their heart, enter boldly but respectfully, confidently yet generously, wisely and gratefully. Dot your Is and cross your Ts and you may just end up with a lover for life.